Saturday, May 31, 2008

Die Another Day, Part 1

Staring into the Batcomputer, the large figure pondered the events from earlier in the evening, recalling his dinner date with Vicki.

"Really, Bruce, I just don't buy it."

Vicki had been looking at the television above the bar. At the bar, a short distance from the television, Sasha sat, looking back in the general direction of Vicki. Sasha was, after all, a bodyguard with Wayne Enterprises Corporate Security, and was there to protect Vicki's date, Bruce Wayne.

For her part, Vicki had made eye contact with Sasha early on in the evening, and nodded a silent greeting. Since then, she rarely glanced in Sasha's direction, and only when something interesting was on the television. At the moment, though, she was fixated on the TV, and Bruce Wayne had to turn around to see what she was looking at.

"Buy what?" Bruce Wayne made eye contact with Sasha, smiled, and then turned back to Vicki.

"That story about Gotham Towers collapsing due to fire," Vicki answered, turning back to look at her companion.

Bruce Wayne paused, studying Vicki. It was in this very restaurant, on a date with Vicki, that he had first received a cat-themed riddle. He and Alfred now believed the cat-themed riddles were from someone they called Catwoman; the original riddles they agreed were from someone they called the Riddler. The riddles from the Riddler had lead the investigation toward likely motives for the attack on the Gotham Trade Center, which caused the collapse of the Gotham Towers as well as a third skyscraper, leaving thousands dead and the Gotham Trade Center in ruins. However, the riddles from Catwoman seemed to address corruption in Gotham's law enforcement agencies, mainly in the Gotham Bureau of Investigation, which prevented Gotham's lawmen from disrupting the attack during the planning stages.

The investigation had come a long way since then, however.

Wayne frowned, thinking about what Dr. Sandra Villanova, another lady-friend of his, had told him about organized crime. She had talked about the Asian Deep State, and had mentioned an umbrella organization known in the underworld only as "The Demon".

A man Wayne had met in Asia, Henri Ducard, had appeared in Gotham City, and may have been the assassin sent to kill Carmine Falcone. Falcone survived only because Batman had crashed his party and saved his life; of course, Falcone still does not know this, and likely believes the Batman was working with the ninja that had infiltrated his party on Halloween. Regardless of what Falcone knew or believed, Batman had proven to be such a persistent and serious nuisance to Falcone's underworld empire that Falcone had a ten-million-dollar contract out on Batman's head. Falcone, whose name kept coming up on the periphery of the investigation, and corrupt elements in the GBI, who had likely enabled the attacks by stopping anyone from preventing them, were connected; more evidence of this connection could include the fact that at least two GBI agents seemed determined to kill Batman and collect the ten-million-dollar reward. In fact, they had set more than one ambush for Batman, and one of the ambushes had almost been successful.

"Bruce, are you listening to me?" Vicki was agitated. Bruce Wayne could be a good friend, but he didn't really seem to be paying attention; although he and Vicki were just friends, and Bruce had not made any pass at Vicki ever, he still had a reputation as a bit of a playboy, and a shallow one at that. She knew he was deeper than what many people thought, but she also knew he could be easily distracted when there were beautiful women around, and indeed, there were a couple in the restaurant tonight.

"Sure... sorry, guess I wasn't." Bruce looked at her. "Whenever I think about the collapse of the Gotham Towers, I can't help but think about the people who died there. Some of them jumped to their deaths to escape the fire; others died several floors above the fire when the buildings collapsed." He paused. "It kind of reminds me of what happened to my parents," he added quietly.

"I'm sorry, Bruce, it didn't even occur to me...." Vicki's voice trailed off.

"It's alright, Vicki. What were you saying?"

"Well," she leaned across the table, lowering her voice, "they try to tell us that fires caused the collapse of the Gotham Towers. But," she looked around, "when has a fire ever caused the collapse of a skyscraper?" She leaned back in her chair. "When they are designing those buildings, they know a fire is not just a possibility. Sooner or later, there will be a fire, and, sooner or later, there will be a big one. It's an eventuality. They design those buildings to survive even catastrophic fires. The Gotham Towers were – what? – some thirty years old? I just don't buy it that fires brought them down." She leaned closer, again. "I heard that several of Gotham's firefighters who were on the scene reported explosions in each tower, right before it collapsed."

Wayne sipped his wine. It was the same story Edward Nygma had told him.

"You know, Bruce, I think the government is covering something up."

"But why?"

"That I don't know." Vicki looked down at her silverware on the dinner table. "But that commission that investigated the events of that day..." she began, then looked up. "What a joke! They left out the most important evidence." Vicki paused. "It's like they all agreed that certain things would not get looked into. No one was held accountable for anything. If the buildings collapsed due to fire, how come there haven't been changes in the fire code? Unless the buildings weren't built to code, in which case, why haven't we heard anything about that?"

Vicki stopped, looking at her wine glass, swirling the wine inside it.

"The very day it happened, they were already calling it 'the Crime of the Century' – who investigates crimes in Gotham City? Isn't it the Gotham Bureau of Investigation? Aren't they the best? Don't they always get their man? But, who investigated the collapse of the Gotham Towers? Some safety board that nobody ever heard of. No evidence, no trials, nothing – just this endless 'War on Crime'. I don't buy it. Bruce, why has no one been held accountable? No trials, where the government has to prove in court how the towers came down. No real investigation, just this safety board and this ridiculous commission. Why?"

Beyond all that Vicki was saying, Bruce Wayne was aware that an incredible number of stock trades had been pushed through the computers in the stock brokerages located in the Gotham Towers during the attack. He was also aware of suspicious stock trades where people benefitted from the events of the day; a few fairly obviously, with short-term gains, but some less obviously, with longer-term gains worth a great deal of money.

Why, indeed, Wayne wondered, had there never been a real, criminal investigation? Aladdin was pronounced guilty, and Gotham's law enforcement was trying to bring him in, though they never seemed to get close to him. Why, indeed?

They were standing on the outskirts of the village. In a daily ritual, a ritual as old as time itself in this part of the world, people who live beyond the village were arriving with their products and wares to sell them, and to buy the things they need to take them home.

It was difficult to judge age. In a land that seemed timeless, the people seemed just as timeless. But the old man who approached looked like he could easily be eighty years old.

The two men stood, and gazed out at the fields among which the dirt road wound. Far out in the fields there were simple structures – homes for the people who worked in the fields. Beyond the fields there were patches of woods.

Up above, the sky was clear and blue; a beautiful day was beginning. It would be warm, perhaps even hot, but this early in the morning, it was still cool. The fields were still shrouded in mist, mixed with smoke from the open fires over which the people were cooking their breakfasts inside the structures where they lived. He smiled at the thought of this foreign "smog".

The old man approached, and looked at the two men standing on the side of the road. The one was familiar to him, but the other one was relatively new in the village. The old man had heard of him, that he had come from a far away place called Gotham City to be a disciple of the master.

"Some people think Batman is the greatest danger to Gotham City," Alfred began. "Reading this report, I am inclined to consider that they might be right."

Bruce Wayne looked up from the Batcomputer.

"Batman's intervention in the situation led to an absolute disaster – only a tremendous amount of revision of the story could lead someone to think otherwise."

Alfred looked at Wayne through his bifocals.

"The situation was resolved with a minimal amount of violence, Alfred," Wayne answered, looking back down at the Batcomputer.

"The use of fuel-air explosives in a hostage environment can hardly be considered a minimal amount of violence, sir," Alfred responded. "Three quarters of the hostages died, and the criminals who were holding them escaped."

The old man stopped in front of the stranger and looked at him. The stranger towered above, tall and muscular. The old man smiled, and with animated gestures, began to speak.

The stranger smiled back, as the master translated the old man's words.

"He says there was a tree on the side of the road. No one knew how old the tree was; it had been there as long as anyone could remember. The tree was very deformed, twisted and gnarled. Under it sat a man. The man had a hunched back and a club foot. His chin rested on his chest, and his hands were deformed, as well. The man was every bit as twisted as the tree under which he sat."

The tall man glanced at the master, listening to the story, and wondering why the old man suddenly decided to share it with someone he had never met.

"Behind the tree were other trees, tall and straight; in front of the man was a road that led from the village to the fields, and along the road walked the men from the village, going out to their day's work in the fields. Many of them felt sorry for the man who sat under the tree, and offered him food. Little by little, the crippled man accumulated enough food for the entire day. The smile on his face was more than enough payment for what he received, as everyone was happy to share with him."

The old man looked up at this stranger in the village, confident he was a new friend.

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